Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Explore classic box canyon, cultural heritage at Placerita Canyon


Botany Trail includes Native house;
Canyon Trail heads along creek

Los Angeles-area residents and visitors can combine two separate routes at the Placerita Canyon Natural Area for a pleasant day hike with children: The Botany and the Canyon trails.

Located close to but nicely tucked away from Calif. Hwy. 14 – the Antelope Valley Freeway – in Santa Clarita, Calif., the natural area sits about 1,550 feet above sea level on the San Gabriel Mountain's western side. Chaparral-covered hillsides, oak woodlands and lush creek beds cutting through vertical granite walls dominate. Parking is available in front of the nature center.

The natural area contains a number of micro ecosystems that range from desert scrub to woodland. The hills along the natural area's southern side rise to more than 3,000 feet above sea level. Beyond them is the Angeles National Forest and its peaks of 8,000-feet and then the sudden drop into the urban Los Angeles Basin.

Two connecting trails
Some 2 million years ago, these foothills lay under the ocean. The natural area sits on the Pacific Plate and has been pushed up by the collision with the North American plate.

A number of trails traverse the natural area with the Botany and the Canyon paths perhaps the easiest.

Start with the short Botany Trail, which begins behind the center and crisscrosses a dry run that flows into Placertia Creek. One of the sights on the trail is this mockup of a house used by natives of the area before Europeans arrived. A number of bridges on the Botany Trail allow hikers to easily traverse a creek that this time of year is a dry run.

The Canyon Trail is to the right of the nature center entrance, requiring a crossing of Placerita Creek into a narrow canyon. It follows the trail for about 2-1/2 miles, but depending on the age and energy level of your kids, you can turn back at anytime you like. My three-year-old was able to handle the botany Trial and about a quarter mile of the Canyon Trail before we turned back.

Classic Western box canyon
The canyon was formed by the dual forces of uplift from the Pacific and North American plates colliding and from the creek eroding the ground downward. Placerita Creek has formed a classic Western box canyon. A granite wall along the Canyon Trail also shows the power of tectonic movement.

The Canyon Trail leads to the Placerita Creek waterfall at the edge of these foothills. For most of the trail, the creek is dry, especially during late summer through early winter.

Once back at the trailhead, plan a stop at the nature center, where kids can see a live gopher snake, a seashell fossil, and other neat items collected in the canyon.

The trails at the natural area are well maintained, and there's no need for bushwacking (in fact, it's discouraged).

Read more about day hiking with children in my guidebook Hikes with Tykes.